Joseph Smith

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The man himself
Divinely-translated articles about
Restoration by interpretation
Even by study and also by faith
Following the needle of the Liahona
♫ Joseph Smith was called a prophet - dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb! ♫
♫ He founded the Mormon religion - dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb! ♫
South Park[1]

Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805–1844) was an American religious leader, terrorist, and self-proclaimed prophet. Smith claimed an angel named Moroni helped him find and translate a set of golden plates that give an account of Jesus's visit to North America. Smith also claimed God instructed him to restore the one true church, and that all Christian sects and denominations were doctrinally corrupted. God's purported command was for Smith to translate the golden plates into the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon according to Smith was the "most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book" (even the Bible, which Smith thought was imperfect, because according to him, it was carelessly and purposefully altered by ancient scribes and writers).[note 1] The Book of Mormon mentions that Native Americans are the direct descendants of Jews who left Saudi Arabia and sailed across the Indian and Pacific Oceans towards a new promised land somewhere in Central or South America. He also claimed that, once upon a time, all Native Americans were white.[note 2]

Unsurprisingly, most of Smith's neighbors found these claims far-fetched, with Missouri going so far as to sign an extermination order against Mormons. Smith and his followers were forced to relocate until they settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, where he was murdered by a lynch mob, while waiting to be tried for leading the Nauvoo City Council in a decision to destroy a printing press that was critical of him — the City Council declared it a "public nuisance". Although his possible fraud conviction in 1826,[2] reported by Frasier Magazine 47 years later[3][4] is a reason for concern, his modern-day followers, the Mormons, still regard him as their prophet.

Early life[edit]

Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont in 1805, the fifth child of relatively affluent and well-educated parents. In later years he claimed to have had a vision of God in his childhood, although accounts of the year of this vision and of exactly what he saw and what was said to him vary; there are no less than four different accounts of the "First Vision", all in Smith's own hand and all telling radically different stories despite claiming to be about the same event.[5] He also claimed to have been later visited by an angel who showed him the location of a set of plates made of gold on which text was engraved. Smith actually made both of these claims much later in life — there is no evidence of him having actually told anyone of these happenings when they occurred, not even his closest friends or family members. The available evidence actually indicates that he spent much of his youth and early adulthood as a petty con-artist specializing in treasure-hunting and dowsing scams involving "magic seer stones". In 1826, the New York authorities arrested and tried and found him guilty of such activity.[6] In 1827, Smith eloped with a young woman named Emma Hale, whose parents disapproved of his less-than-legal vocation; she became the first of his many wives.[7]

Treasure hunting[edit]

B. H. Roberts said, "Yes, the Prophet's ancestors were credulous. . . . It may be admitted that some of them believed in fortune telling, in warlocks and witches. . . . To be credulous in such things was to be normal people".[8] According to Fayette Lapham, "This Joseph Smith, Senior, we soon learned, from his own lips, was a firm believer in witchcraft and other supernatural things; and had brought up his family in the same belief".[9] Joshua Stafford, a neighbor of the Smith family, noted that their money digging started no later than about 1820, when Joe Smith, Jr., was about fifteen years old: "[I] became acquainted with the family of Joseph Smith, Sen. about the year 1819 or 20. They then were laboring people, in low circumstances. A short time after this, they commenced digging for hidden treasures . . . and told marvellous stories about ghosts, hob-goblins, caverns, and various other mysterious matters".[10]

Justice Joel King Noble, who tried Smith in an 1830 trial in Colesville, N.Y., related in a letter that when Joe Smith and others were digging "for a Chest of money," they acquired a black dog and offered it as "a sacrifice [blo]od Sprinkled prayer made at the time (no money obtained) the above Sworn to on trial…".[11][12]

The Book of Mormon[edit]

Smith claimed he got gold plates from the Angel Moroni.
See the main article on this topic: Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is written (rather poorly) in imitation of the King James Bible with tedious overuse of the phrases "it came to pass" and "exceedingly" and "dwindled in unbelief" and "sore wroth" (almost to the point of becoming a running joke) and with entire chapters and books padded out with verse after verse of meaningless filler (including several verses that consist entirely of the same sentence repeated three or four times with slightly different wording). The "gospel" portion in 3 Nephi is more or less cut and pasted from the Gospel according to Mark.

The book of gold plates Smith purportedly found and "translated" from "Reformed Egyptian" was the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The method of translation involved placing a "seer stone" (possibly the same stone or stones Smith has been accused of using earlier as a confidence trickster) in a hat, placing his head into it, and then dictating what he saw to another individual, who would transcribe it.[note 3] No physical evidence of these golden plates exists, as Smith claims they were taken back into heaven after he did his translation, but twelve other people ("The Three Witnesses," "The Eight Witnesses," and Mary Whitmer) reported seeing the plates, and his wife said she felt them under a cloth. Although many of these witnesses later left Joseph Smith's movement, they stuck to their testimony of seeing gold plates (and, in the case of the Three Witnesses, an angel),[13] which is a favorite piece of evidence among Mormon apologists. The theology of the Book of Mormon is remarkably orthodox, with condemnations of polygamy[14] and none of the other "whackjob" features attributed to Mormonism, although it does claim that the Fall of Adam and Eve was necessary for real human life, and that the Bible is only a beginning to God's word (since his word never ends). Missionaries leave copies of the Book of Mormon with contacts because it is the perfect case of milk before meat, a principle that is taught in Mormon scripture,[15] and which they justify by faith in God. (If there is a God who deserves faith, then it makes sense to trust him about what spiritual truths humans need to learn first. If there is not such a God, then milk before meat has little justification.)

Book of Abraham[edit]

A portion of the papyri Smith interpreted as the Book of Abraham. His conclusions differed greatly from the actual translations.
See the main article on this topic: Pearl of Great Price

Smith also made an alleged "translation" of an Egyptian scroll he bought, which became the "Book of Abraham" in his mind (actually known as the Breathing Permit of HôrWikipedia among Egyptologists, having nothing to do with Abraham). The Book of Abraham is the source of the Mormon belief that God lives near the star Kolob with his multiple wives; it also makes some rather… 'interesting' claims about Egyptian history, such as claiming that 'Pharaoh' is a name rather than a title and that Egypt itself was named after a woman named 'Egyptus' (it's actually derived from the Greek 'Aigyptos', which in turn was a mispronunciation of the Egyptians' name for their capital, Memphis).[note 4] Unlike the alleged "golden plates", this scroll is known to exist. Scholars who have examined it concluded it to be common Egyptian writings with no relation whatsoever to the text Smith claimed he translated as the "Book of Abraham".[note 5] Despite the fact that the Book was exposed as a hoax nearly half a century ago, the Mormon church still officially accepts the "Book of Abraham" as divinely inspired scripture (it is part of The Pearl of Great Price, one of their four standard works of scripture along with the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine & Covenants).

Facsimiles of some of the scrolls, ostensibly copied by Smith himself, are included in the official church version of the Book of Abraham, along with Smith's labels and annotations pointing out who individual characters are and what certain words or phrases mean. The facsimiles are, at least visually, fairly accurate depictions of the original scrolls — the hieroglyphs are clear and identifiable, which makes it easy to discover they do not actually bear any resemblance at all to the translations Smith attributed to them. In addition, virtually every single character is misidentified — for example, Osiris is labelled as the prophet Abraham, the female Isis is named as the male 'Pharaoh' (which is given as a name rather than a title, which means that he would have been referred to as 'Pharaoh Pharaoh'), and Anubis (who is missing his snout in the recreation but retains the jackal ears) is inexplicably identified as a black slave with a vaguely Hebrew-sounding gibberish name. The facsimile of a round object (now identifiable as a hypocephalus) is even worse, being mostly nonsense clearly copied from other sources, including several phrases composed of two different languages and large numbers of characters placed upside down, backwards, or in the wrong place, misspelling words. Once the original scrolls were found, it was discovered that several sections were damaged or missing, and were presumably filled in on the facsimiles either by Smith or one of his assistants with what they thought should go there; it's worth noting that the damaged sections in the original scrolls correspond exactly with those sections of the facsimiles that Egyptologists once had difficulty explaining.

Egyptian Language and Grammar[edit]

As a companion to the aforementioned Book of Abraham, Smith also compiled an "Egyptian Language and Grammar" that claimed to teach the Egyptian language, which was not yet known at the time. The text remained in the possession of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints after his death and was eventually placed in long-term storage in a vault in Salt Lake City, where it remains as of 2015. The church originally had no intention of releasing it, but several pages of the text on microfilm were leaked by an anonymous source in 1966. Modern scholars and linguists have examined them and determined that Smith had absolutely no notion of the Egyptian language whatsoever; indeed, he achieved the noteworthy accomplishment of getting every single thing wrong. The resulting 'language' he claimed to be teaching is pure fantasy; he made it up.

Doctrine & Covenants[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Doctrine and Covenants

Doctrine & Covenants is a collection of supplemental prophecies and instructions for the church, written mostly by Joseph Smith, who claimed he received them from God. The Doctrine & Covenants includes a prophecy that the one true church would be located in Independence, Missouri, and that present-day Independence was the site of the Garden of Eden. It's interesting to note that Independence is now the site of the headquarters of the Community of Christ, a rival church in the LDS movement that accepts the Trinity and affirms gay relationships, among other things. According to the same purported prophecy received by Smith, the site of Independence was to be the location of the future construction of the New Jerusalem that is mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Smith also encouraged polygamy in the Doctrine of Covenants which accordingly contradicts the Book of Mormon which says that polygamous relationships are "abominations".[16] It also contains a series of restrictive and arbitrary rules members are expected to follow. The Word of Wisdom is the most well-known of these many rules and instructions.


Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered by a mob of vigilantes while incarcerated in an Illinois jail awaiting trial for his use of his office as Mayor of Nauvoo to destroy a printing press he (along with the Nauvoo City Council) claimed was a "public nuisance." One of Smith's last projects before being killed was his attempt at a wholesale revision of the King James Version of the Bible, with Smith claiming to restore pieces that had been lost in translation (read: making up revisions himself). Also, just before his death, he was preparing to run for President of the United States as an Independent candidate.

His movement fragmented into several competing sects, with the prophet Brigham Young taking a wagon train consisting of the vast majority of the movement's members to Utah. This branch became The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormons, as they are usually referred to. The Missouri branch became the Reorganized Latter Day Saints, today known as the Community of Christ, while numerous smaller groups such as the Strangites and Bickertonites split off and went their own way.


Joseph Smith was the first Prophet who benefited from the invention of the printing press. As such, he has left a paper trail more detailed than other religious founders. Whereas Muslims had bickered for centuries over various hadith, and Christian church councils had debated the canonical gospels for generations, the majority of Joseph Smith's writings are still well at hand. Historical analysis of Smith's Mormon saga is a rough grouping of three: blatant hagiographies, anti-Mormon Christian apologetics, and objective writings about the founding of Mormon culture. The first two types are more accessible than the third, especially in light of extreme political correctness that labels religious skepticism as impolite.

Furthermore, two of the most informative books on the topic are controversial. Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven is a brief history of the faith that focuses on some of the bizarre Fundamentalist Mormons who live outside LDS jurisdiction. Additionally, Fawn M. Brodie's No Man Knows My History is a milestone of Smith's biography that fuses Freudian and Marxist literary analysis with psychoanalytical theories in an attempt to humanize Joseph Smith's actions. Upon their publication, the LDS Church expectedly showed dismay. Brodie, raised in the faith, was excommunicated, while Krakauer, an agnostic, was given negative free publicity by the Church, who offered point-by-point critiques that were biased by their intolerance.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. This may be true to an extent, since the texts of the Bible were agreed to be canonized by Roman Christians two centuries after the original documents were written. It's possible that those Roman Christians were influenced by the Roman paganism and altered the original doctrines and teachings found in the Bible by omitting and adding certain passages to the original text and incorporating certain Roman ideas into the Bible.
  2. The exact phrase he used was "white and delightsome," always used together, as though the two were interrelated; in Mormon theology, non-white skin was always depicted as a negative from being a descendant of Cain.
  3. Literally "Talking through his hat!"
  4. Smith was apparently unaware that Egyptians did not actually refer to themselves as 'Egyptians'.
  5. Specifically, it's a 'Breathing Permit', an Egyptian funerary document intended to provide the deceased passage to the afterlife. In this case, the deceased was named 'Hor', and not only was he not a prophet, he wasn't even royalty or nobility. The materials from which Smith 'translated' also apparently included a stone disc that modern scholars, going by Smith's own drawings of the item, can easily identify as a hypocephalus, yet another common Egyptian funerary artifact.


  1. South Park - All About MormonsWikipedia (the song)
  2. Joseph Smith's 1826 Conviction
  3. Analysis of Wesley Walters' "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials"
  4. Salt Lake City Messenger #68
  5. See the Wikipedia article on First Vision.
  6. Holden, Robert (2011). "Joseph Smith - Money Digger". Mormon Handbook. p. 245. ISBN 9781257959044. Retrieved 2017-08-10. "On March 20, 1826, four years before publishing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith was tried in court and found guilty for deceiving Josiah Stowel into believing that he could locate hidden treasure by divination — by peering at a stone in a hat. Joseph employed the same process to 'translate' his Book of Mormon." 
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Emma Hale.
  8. B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, vol. 1, pp. 26-27.
  9. Historical Magazine, 7 May 1870, p. 306.
  10. H. Michael Marquardt & Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994, p. 64.
  11. Letter of Justice Noble, dated March 8, 1842, photographically reproduced in Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials," p. 134.
  12. Conchisle
  13. Did the Eleven Witnesses Actually See the Gold Plates? Mormonism Research Ministry. Retrieved on 17 February 2018.
  14. What the Book of Mormon says about Polygamy. Skeptic's Annotated Book of Mormon. Retrieved on 17 February 2018.
  15. and Covenants 19:22
  16. Jacob 2: 23-28 (Book of Mormon)